DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django Unchained movie stillI don’t know how he keeps doing it, but Quentin Tarantino always surprises me with his restraint.

This might seem like an odd thing to say about the man who gave us the blood-soaked extremes of Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and, well, any of his other films, but for whatever reason I always expect his films to completely slip the leash and run wild. Django Unchained maintains the madness of the director’s earlier films, but more so than ever before, it feels like he has kept his most extreme instincts relatively in check.

Django Unchained begins with a fairly simple A-to-B narrative. Pre-Civil War era slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is acquired (in a classic Tarantino opening scene, rivaling Inglourious Basterds) by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter on the search for three wanted brothers. However, it soon becomes apparent that this hunt encompasses only the film’s opening third, and a much more sprawling story unfolds over the course of the close to three hour running time. For assisting Schultz, Django earns his freedom and the pair enter into a vengeful partnership in pursuit of Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a slave sold to the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). 

Perhaps more than any of Tarantino’s previous films, it feels like he is really trying to say something with Django Unchained. As great as a film like Pulp Fiction is, it really works on cool factor alone, and couldn’t exactly be praised for its depth. Here however, Tarantino seems to know precisely when to dial back the cool to comment on the nature of human violence. While full of outrageous gunfights packed to the brim with geysers of gore, the film features an alarming amount of up close, almost intimate brutality that is very upsetting.

Which feels to me like precisely the point. The savagery inflicted upon slaves by their white masters is shoved right in the audiences face, and is much more difficult to endure than the exaggerated violence of the guns, which draw more laughs than anything else. Tarantino has never shied away from violence in his work, but the very clear binary nature of the bloodshed in Django Unchained feels very carefully thought out, and really opens the film up for deeper analysis than anything he has done before.

That said, Django Unchained doesn’t completely escape Tarantino’s self-indulgent streak. The sheer length of the film will certainly cause some viewers to question the necessity of much of the final 30 minutes, particularly the baffling sequence in which the director makes his obligatory cameo appearance. Also, the most egregious use of a certain n-word since Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is going to raise eyebrows with conservative audiences, opening the debate of whether Tarantino is simply courting controversy in the hopes of drawing a crowd.

Aside from perhaps the director himself, the acting is top-notch across the board, with Foxx and Waltz sharing great chemistry, and DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson (as house slave Stephen) both hilarious and frightening in equal measure. Django Unchained navigates a razor-thin space between raucously entertaining and unapologetically confronting, yet rarely veers too far either side to become either exploitative or preachy. It’s a familiar but somehow surprising effort from Tarantino, and while it may not rank amongst his most well-crafted films, Django Unchained stands out as a bold and completely assured work from a modern auteur doing exactly what he wants to do. 

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THE MASTER

the_master_2After taking forever to reach us down here in New Zealand, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master finally has a limited release this week. I’m not quite sure how I felt about it, so this isn’t a review so much as just a few thoughts I had about the film.

Despite the lack of a best picture Oscar nomination, The Master is possibly the most highly regarded film of 2012. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most gifted directors around; his previous film There Will Be Blood is right amongst the best films of the last 10 years, and features one of history’s great lead performances from Daniel Day Lewis. 

Expectations were obviously pretty high going into this movie.

In a lot of ways, The Master doesn’t disappoint. It is impeccably crafted from the very first frame. In my view, Anderson’s greatest strength is his skill at telling a story through character rather than traditional narrative, and the characters of The Master are just so richly written, and played to near perfection. If Joaquin Phoenix’s work feels a little big for most of the movie, it comes together brilliantly in the closing scenes, a complete performance. Even better is Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd, and as good as he always is, this is a role he will be remembered for. Holding her own against such imposing leading men is Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, a fascinating character I would have liked to have seen much more of, and, in typical Anderson fashion, an array of excellent supporting players including Jesse Plemons and Laura Dern enrich the world of the film.

Anderson’s films are always tough nuts to crack, aren’t exactly the easiest things to enjoy, and with the exception of Punch Drunk Love perhaps, exist in some pretty murky territory. This might be the reason why, despite all of its strengths, truthfully The Master left me cold. It’s like gazing upon a huge feat of engineering. You can admire the construction of a 100-level skyscraper, wonder at the level of skill in its creation, but you can’t really connect emotionally with it. It may be impressive, but is absolutely unfeeling. That’s The Master for me. It is a film that feels like it is defying you to enjoy it, as if Anderson is intentionally keeping you at arm’s length, and I was never able to connect with it beyond an admiration of the craftsmanship.

That said, it is without question a film that demands to be seen, and seen, and seen again. I’m sure there are untold nooks and crannies to be explored upon closer analysis, and it’s likely that I will grow to appreciate it even more. For now though, I’m mostly at a loss regarding The Master, and that might be the best thing about it. Few filmmakers have the talent to provoke such an unusual reaction in me, and it’s a feeling I choose to savour and enjoy, rather than be frustrated by.

LES MISERABLES

anne-hathaway-les-miserables1For those of us who are huge fans of film musicals, there is a tragic lack of quality in modern cinema. Sure, occasionally a gem will come along, shaking up the rigid classical structure and offering something exciting, but for every Once there seems to be a handful of Chicagos, Nines and Sweeney Todds. It’s tough out there for the song-and-dance enthusiasts.

With Les Misérables (an adaptation of the stage musical, itself an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel), director Tom Hooper had a better shot at making something great than anyone has for some time. All the pieces were in place: solid source material, a director fresh from awards glory, and a well selected cast of performers. So, after chewing it over for several days, why is it that I’m beginning to think this might be a terrible film?

What works in Les Misérables works very well indeed. First of all, the story itself is top-notch; a bleak melodrama of the French Revolution with an emotional core that still resonates and feels relevant 150 years after its debut.

The cast are for the most part excellent, committing themselves admirably to the challenge of delivering essentially all dialogue through song. Hugh Jackman oozes the nobility required for Jean Valjean, displaying a stunning voice and holding together a performance that could quickly become camp in the wrong hands. Equally good is Eddie Redmayne, playing Marius’ strength and bravery with a well-observed hint of naïveté.

The real acting drawcard however is Anne Hathaway’s sadly brief role, for which she will surely get much attention at awards time. Her performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ one of Les Misérables’ most iconic songs, is quite honestly one of the most powerful pieces of acting I can remember, and is so raw and heart-wrenching that you will be left gasping. Not quite as strong is Russell Crowe, deserving of some credit for putting himself out there, but whose voice just isn’t strong enough to really convey the menace of the villainous Javert.

Unfortunately almost everything else about the film is really handled quite badly. Much like The King’s Speech (Hooper’s previous film), Les Misérables is a victim of over-stylisation and awkward cinematography that is at times inexplicably jarring and, for lack of a better word, ugly. With all of the elaborate set design Hooper is apparently so excited about, for the vast majority of the film he insists on using very tight close-ups, making the sets and backgrounds redundant. It doesn’t help matters that, on the rare occasions when his camera does retreat enough to show a little more, the over-use of blue screen backdrops gives a ghastly, manufactured look, too flat to be anything close to believable.

Whatever Hooper’s reasoning behind the choices he makes with Les Misérables is obviously not for us to know. Adapting a stage musical such as this, I can understand the temptation to capture close-ups, offering an intimacy not possible in a live theatre, and it’s precisely for this reason that the inevitable hero moments each principal character has (like Hathaway’s aforementioned solo) are far and away the best moments in the film. 

But surely a huge reason to do this at all would be to free oneself from the restraints of live theatre and indulge the epic nature of Hugo’s original vision? Hooper, far too beholden to the play, instead chooses to merely recreate what could be easily put on stage, not taking advantage of the scope cinema can offer. The result is a well-acted but visually turgid mess, which only seems more misguided the further I get from it.

LIFE OF PI

life-of-pi2I think it might be time to put to bed the idea of an ‘unfilmable novel’. Particularly in recent cinema history, as Hollywood has increasingly relied on existing material for its output, so-called unfilmable books have yielded movies of varying quality. It’s true that some (such as 2012’s two-part adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, by all accounts a catastrophic failure) only bolster arguments favouring the concept, but let us not forget that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was long considered unfilmable before Francis Ford Coppola gave us Apocalypse Now, not to mention the certainly difficult but successful job Peter Jackson did with JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Which brings us to Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s introspective 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel. A challenging story to bring to the screen to be sure, but under the expert hand of Ang Lee the film is yet one more example of how difficult material can be adapted given the right amount of time and care.

Life of Pi is at its core a tale of survival against insurmountable odds, following the titular teenager’s (Suraj Sharma) months spent adrift on a lifeboat after the sinking of a cargo ship transporting his family from India to Canada. A dwindling menagerie of animals from the family zoo are also along for the ride, including the fearsome Bengal tiger Richard Parker, representing those who managed to escape the ship and cling to Pi’s tiny craft.

Perhaps the difficulty of adapting the novel lay in keeping audience interest during long sequences involving little more than a boy and a tiger, and it’s likely the film would have dragged were it not for the astonishing visual spectacle Lee brings to the screen. He takes full advantage of all technical wizardry available, balancing the ocean’s serene beauty and unapologetic violence in just the right measure. Even the 3-D, something I personally am usually resistant to, never intrudes or calls attention to itself, but rather complements the oppressively flat horizon so much of the film plays out in front of. Life of Pi will undoubtedly be in the best visual effects conversation come awards season, with Richard Parker in particular standing out as one of the most impressive digital characters yet created.

Exploring Life of Pi a little deeper, Lee develops strong thematic currents relating to storytelling and faith, and how the two are entwined. As a story about storytelling, the film works very well from the beginning, as the older Pi (played wonderfully by Irrfan Khan) relates his tale to a visiting writer (Rafe Spall). Yet it is also a story about faith, and here the waters get a little murkier. What Lee is trying to say about faith and religion is open to interpretation (and that’s likely the point), but the film’s one major shortcoming is a lack of satisfying answers regarding what is the most clearly defined aspect of Pi himself.

The narrative seems to promote the importance of faith as a general concept, not tied to any specific religion, but more akin to a sharing of humanistic beliefs. It’s not the specifics of faith’s origins or even ultimate goals that matter, but rather how the beliefs are shared, adapted and passed on. Not the most conclusive analysis I know, but the links between faith and storytelling are there, and perhaps repeat viewings will offer up more answers.

Despite the elusive nature of some of Life of Pi’s subtext, it really is a film that deserves praise and attention. Never one to pigeonhole himself, Lee has crafted a thoughtful and moving fantasy that is beautiful to behold yet also offers much intellectual nourishment.